In wartime Washington there is but one point of bipartisan agreement: The land forces of the United States are too small. Hillary Clinton may be trying to make her fellow Democrats forget her vote to go to war in Iraq, but she insists that "it is past time to increase the end-strength of the Army and Marines." Sen. Barack Obama agrees, and even the New York Times has editorialized that "larger ground forces are an absolute necessity for the sort of battles that America is likely to fight during the coming decades."
On the Republican side, the leading candidates are straining to one-up each other on the issue. Rudy Giuliani wants to enlarge the Army by about 70,000 from its current strength of 510,000 active-duty soldiers. Mitt Romney thinks 100,000 is a better number. John McCain is working with his advisers to formulate his answer, but he might well trump his rivals.
And with Donald Rumsfeld at last departed from the Pentagon, even President Bush has opened his mind. Announcing the Iraq "surge," the president allowed as how he was "inclined to believe that we need to increase the permanent size of both the United States Army and United States Marines."
As a political matter and as a strategic impulse, this is long overdue. But it is only a starting point. In the near term, given the stresses of dual surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deleterious effects of more than a decade of neglect, almost any plan to expand U.S. land forces will help. But the larger project of rebuilding the Marines and, especially, the U.S. Army to sustain the demands of a new era will require as much thought as money. And it's a job that will fall mostly to our next president; the Bush administration can only begin the process. To properly size and shape American land forces--so that the Marine Corps and the Army complement each other--we must answer five questions.
What is the Mission?
During the Cold War, the classic question for defense planners was, How much is enough? The unstated assumption was that the strategic goal was to contain Soviet aggression. Since the death of our superpower doppelgänger, the question for the Pentagon has been, What do you want us to do? The attacks of 9/11 confused the picture: There may be a bipartisan consensus on the need to expand U.S. land forces, but there is almost no agreement on how to employ them. Without a broader understanding of the missions for U.S. ground forces, Pentagon planners won't know how much is enough or even what kind of forces are needed.
This is a question we have been reluctant to face. The attitude of the Clinton administration during the Balkan conflicts was, essentially, We don't do land wars. Even though the Kosovo air campaign by itself did not stop the Serbs' ethnic cleansing--it took British prime minister Tony Blair's threat to deploy ground forces, along with pressure from the Russians, to induce Slobodan Milosevic's change of heart--the "no-contact war" in Kosovo perversely bolstered the position of airpower enthusiasts in the Pentagon. Rumsfeld's vision of "defense transformation" was a pumped-up version of no-contact war.
But the experiences of the Bush years ought to have driven these fantasies from our minds. The idea that we can simply fight the way we would prefer to fight--rapidly, decisively, and from a distance--is no longer tenable. Moreover, we can see multiple missions for land forces, each crucial to the success of American strategy.
The first mission is the defense of the American homeland. The attacks of September 11 brought a new focus to this traditional mission; the possibility of terrorist attack rightly remains a prime concern. But in fact there has long been a large role for U.S. ground forces at home. National forces have been employed in internal emergencies countless times: from enforcing desegregation to securing the streets of Los Angeles or Washington during riots. They have provided critical command and control capabilities and manpower during floods, forest fires, and storms; the front-line relief efforts following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 were a partnership between the state of Florida and the 10th Mountain Division from upstate New York. Hurricane Katrina, a larger, regional disaster, likewise precipitated a national military response by all the armed services. And there looms the sobering prospect of a still larger catastrophe, in the form of an attack on the United States employing weapons of mass destruction.
There is more: American strategists have for centuries understood the Caribbean Basin to be an integral part of our "homeland." The 1989 invasion of Panama was nothing if not a reaffirmation of the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, and there is no reason to believe that our security concerns in our own region will diminish. Even as we await the end of the Castro era in Cuba we know not what turmoil the dictator's passing will bring; Hugo Chàvez seems mostly a buffoon, but Venezuela supplies about one-sixth of our oil imports. And supposedly "transnational" phenomena--population flows and the international narcotics trade--keep significant U.S. Army units occupied on our borders.
Despite these widely varied assignments and the potential for catastrophe, the defense of the American homeland is a relative bargain. Many of these internal tasks are best done by the Army National Guard. And, Castro and Chàvez notwithstanding, the Americas remain generally peaceful and fairly well governed.
It is mostly the conduct of "The Long War"--a more useful and accurate term than "Global War on Terror"--that will determine the size and shape of U.S. ground forces.
In this case, too, the fundamental problem is to face up to the true nature and extent of the conflict. The Long War is nothing less than a struggle for political power across the Islamic world, though most particularly in the Arabian heartland. It is a conflict precipitated by the slow collapse of the ancien régime: the monarchs, autocrats, outright tyrants, and petty dictators whose legitimacy is gradually but inexorably being eroded. Islamist revolutionaries--initially Persian Shiites but now, and far more dangerously, radical Sunnis like Osama bin Laden--have laid claim to these weak and derelict states in the name of Allah. Regimes of faith are poised to sweep aside the brittle and all-too-earthly regimes of the old order. The alternative is a liberal and democratic revolution in the name of free people.
We cannot be indifferent to the outcome of this struggle; the world's industrial economies depend upon the region's energy resources, and the region's political troubles embroil the world's great powers, including the rising People's Republic of China. Nor can we confidently retreat to an "offshore" balancing of local potentates. This was supposedly the preferred U.S. posture--now an Excalibur-like ideal for those unhappy with the war in Iraq--but it has been overtaken by events. In the three decades since the creation of U.S. Central Command, our presence in the region has shifted from mostly maritime and transitory to an extended engagement on land.
The Arabian heartland--the region centered on Mecca and Medina but including Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq, which al Qaeda theorist Ayman al Zawahiri famously described in his directive to the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi as essential to the jihadists' project--is unquestionably the central front of The Long War. Strategically, al Qaeda in Iraq now matters more than al Qaeda in Waziristan; bin Laden and Zawahiri no longer direct the forces they helped set in motion. And the conflict in Iraq is redefining the jihadists' priorities: They see themselves as engaged in a struggle against the Shiite "apostates" and--according to extremist propaganda--their Iranian Shiite masters. This larger war is being fought with less and less regard for the Iraqis themselves; the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province and now a collection of "nationalist" insurgent groups want to separate themselves from al Qaeda in Iraq.
Nor can there be a neat U.S. disengagement--or "redeployment," to use the term favored by House Democratic leaders--from this central front. Even were the Sunni insurgency defeated, there would remain the need to defend our ally, the government in Baghdad, from external dangers. Not the least of these is Iran, on the road to becoming a nuclear power. But equally, the al Qaeda revolutionaries will not soon give up the struggle. It is their strategy to spark a civil war within Islam, and their core tactic is the practice of terrorism on a global scale. For them not to trigger a nuclear-fueled wild fire, the United States must stay engaged in the region, "onshore," with sizable land forces.
But although the Arabian heartland is the central front, The Long War is already being waged on other fronts. The war in Afghanistan is a contest over a key "middle ground," where our goal is not simply to continue to suppress the Taliban and al Qaeda cells, but to stabilize and welcome a second ally--an ally eager to establish a longterm strategic partnership with the United States and the West. The geographic centrality of Afghanistan--it borders on Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even briefly China--makes it strategically essential. An American withdrawal from Afghanistan, already hinted at by the Bush administration's pass-the-buck-to-NATO policy, would not only relieve pressure on Osama bin Laden but also exacerbate all the worst habits and stoke the strategic fears of the Pakistani army and governing elites. Though it hasn't received the press attention of the Iraq surge, the current surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is likewise an expression of American strategic priorities. Future ground force planning should reflect this longterm effort.
If we accept the necessity for direct military engagement on at least these two fronts, there is also a need to synchronize an "indirect approach" to other parts of the Islamic world. Of particular concern are regions where religious practice, traditional culture, and political habits are inhospitable to the austere precepts of the Islamist revolutionaries. The faith of Muhammad was spread by trade as well as conquest, and from West Africa to Southeast Asia it has produced local manifestations that reflect indigenous society as well as the teachings of the Koran. As the report of the 9/11 Commission concluded, a primary task for American strategy is to prevent these regions from either providing sanctuary to terrorist groups or becoming their recruiting grounds. Moreover, many of these countries are important U.S. strategic interests quite on their own--Nigeria, for instance, now the source of roughly 11 percent of U.S. oil imports, or the Philippines, until recently the host of major U.S. military bases.
In these regions, the efforts of the Pentagon to solidify alliances and "build partnership capacity" have led to expanded military deployments. These range across all the armed services. Often they are simply brief exercises, but the trend is toward longer missions involving land forces. Perhaps the best example is "Joint Task Force--Horn of Africa," established in Djibouti in 2002, with an average strength of 1,500 land troops and a naval force about one-third that size. General John Abizaid, recently retired as chief of U.S. Central Command, often described JTF-HOA as a model for success in The Long War. A further indication of the Pentagon's rising interest in the Islamic rim countries is the carving of the new U.S. Africa Command--a full-blown, four-star theater command--out of U.S. European Command.
While the many commitments of The Long War will be the main preoccupation of the active-duty U.S. land forces, a number of additional dangers must be considered when determining the size and structure of the Army and Marine Corps. While primary responsibility for the land defense of South Korea has been assumed by the Korean army, with the U.S. garrison there trimmed to a minimum, any crisis or actual war--especially given North Korean nuclear capabilities--would call for a surge in U.S. land, air, and naval forces. Even more uncertain would be a postwar or even post-reunification scenario, whether the result of an unanticipated and peaceful development or a catastrophe. Either one could potentially call for an even larger and more extended American presence on the ground.
Beyond Korea, the prospects for unforeseen contingencies are undiminished. As the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized, these might occur in response to nuclear proliferation, either to preempt the use of nuclear weapons, to respond to their use, or to attempt to prevent their further spread in the event of the collapse of a nuclear state. Perhaps even scarier than a hostile government in Tehran armed with weapons of mass destruction is the prospect of the chaotic implosion of that government.
Finally, the United States has long performed a host of global "shaping" and "engagement" missions. These include a wide range of exercises, show-the-flag missions, and so on. Because the Army and Marine Corps are so consumed by the needs of Iraq and Afghanistan rotations--either deployed, recovering from deployment, or preparing for the next deployment--there is precious little land-force capacity immediately available for these day-to-day tasks. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, we are still at war with the land forces we began with, while the demands of the mission--the multiple missions--have risen sharply.
What Kind of War?
If the number and duration of operations since 9/11 has been far from our initial assumptions, the nature of these wars was also unanticipated. The Rumsfeld "transformation" project, premised on the assumption that victory would be secured by the precise application of firepower, has collapsed. War, it seems, is not the same as battle.
Irregular war in general and our Long War in particular go far toward eradicating the distinction between front line and home front, between the tactical and the political, for both our enemies and ourselves. The attacks of 9/11 created a new reality: The American homeland is directly at risk. This must be a factor not only in structuring the U.S. military, but also in planning operations abroad. Arguably, the principal deterrent to action against Iran is not the fear of missiles and warheads but the very real danger of terror attacks on Americans and our allies. The U.S. ability and willingness to project power abroad is filtered through a new, post-9/11 prism.
We fight with new constraints abroad, as well. The defense transformation movement was premised on the idea that battlefields would be transparent, and that when enemy forces massed--or even were detected in small formations or in headquarters--they could be struck swiftly, devastatingly, and from half a world away. And this was actually quite true: We should recall how surprisingly successful the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were. Pundits barely had a chance to explain that Afghanistan was the graveyard of empires before the Taliban and al Qaeda forces were decimated by the creative use of intelligence operatives, special operations forces, and airpower. But, alas, this was not the end of the story. The decisive battles are proving to be highly irregular, and the crucial battlefields--the minds as well as the cities, villages, and wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan--to be highly opaque. Useful or "actionable" intelligence is fleeting, more often the product of the persistent presence of soldiers and Marines in neighborhoods than of satellite sensors. The "small wars" of the 21st century are conducted with modern technologies, to be sure--employed by the enemy as well as by us--but our ability to exploit a "revolution in military affairs" is not as expected.
Further, even the ability to dominate more conventional battlefields should not be taken for granted. The Israeli experience in Lebanon in 2006 serves as a wake-up call. Again, airpower and strike warfare did not deliver the promised results. When a land campaign was hastily initiated to attack Hezbollah formations and positions in southern Lebanon, the Israeli army was poorly prepared, either for the level of resistance encountered or for the complexity of the terrain and the quality of the defenses.
Hezbollah leaders and Lebanese village militias proved far more committed to the fight than the Arab armies of 1967 or 1973: Revolutionary Islam is a motivator far more potent than old pan-Arab nationalism or Baath-style socialism. What's more, Hezbollah had newly effective weaponry and an unprecedented level of tactical sophistication in addition to surprising cohesion. And if their enemies were tougher, the Israelis were weaker precisely where in the past their advantages had been greatest. Hamstrung in recent years between irregular-warfare missions on the Palestinian front and the challenges of developing the means to strike at Iranian nuclear targets, the Israel Defense Forces had lost their edge in large-unit, conventional land warfare. In sum, a cautionary tale for U.S. ground forces: We should expect that our enemies and potential adversaries will try to mimic or adapt Hezbollah's successes.
Yet an altogether more challenging battlefield environment will exist wherever operations are conducted under a nuclear shadow. The Pentagon, to its credit, highlighted this issue in the 2006 defense review, but only hinted at the immensity of the tactical, operational, and strategic challenges. Indeed, U.S. ground forces have been here before: In the 1950s, the Army developed what it called "the Pentomic division" structure. The basic concept was to disperse U.S. ground forces to reduce their vulnerability to the tactical nuclear weapons then being deployed in Soviet formations in Eastern Europe. But it soon became clear that, while sound in theory, the idea was unworkable in practice. Modern technologies might overcome a number of problems, but many of the difficulties of maneuvering and, particularly, massing forces would remain. The larger operational challenges--simply gaining access to the strongly protected North Korean, Iranian, or even Pakistani nuclear facilities--are more daunting still. Even in relatively benign scenarios, where some elements in the country or region of operations will allow or assist U.S. forces or where initial strikes have been successful, the tyrannies of time and distance present enormous hurdles. And so the strategic prospects for employing conventional forces of all kinds, including even the most elite and capable land forces, in a nuclear environment would present a U.S. president with less-than-appetizing options. It may be that, with effort and investment, new options can be created, but they must be regarded as a future goal rather than a present reality.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the changing nature of the traditional "shaping" or "engagement" mission. The effort to build more lasting partnerships or alliances with frontline states and their militaries as part of a Long War strategy asks more of the U.S. military than conventional theater security cooperation plans, which are often centered on episodic exercises rather than the day in, day out building of local capacity and institutions. To help the Nigerians or the Indonesians become a full-fledged partner in rolling back the influence of Islamic revolutionaries demands not simply tactical competence or interoperability, but the reorientation of their armies away from their internal missions, which often are one of the few tangible expressions of national sovereignty. The new partnerships resemble the military portions of the all-agency "country teams" in Southeast Asia during the Cold War more than they do, for example, the successful-but-transitory combined campaign against the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines. The Defense Department is wrestling with the force-planning implications of this longterm, partner-building concept, but initial assessments suggest that there are more than a dozen critical states where U.S. forces should be engaged in this fashion, denying sanctuary to terrorists and helping to buttress the legitimacy of governments, especially in struggling democracies.
Finally, the emerging nature of land warfare raises new questions about the efficacy of projecting land power from the sea. In a number of critical missions, the value of sea-based land forces is undeniable and arguably even greater than it has been for some time--in Southeast Asia and West Africa, for example. Likewise, in contingency operations, the flexibility and combined-arms punch of Marine expeditionary units cannot be matched by special operations forces or Army airborne units. At the same time, the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan--that is, the central fights on the central fronts--are nothing if not extended land campaigns. The real value the Marines have added in both cases is not their sea basing but their mental flexibility. That's a precious asset, but not a basis for force planning.
What Kind of Force?
Given the number and variety of missions and the emerging nature of land war, it is apparent that U.S. land forces need not only to be more numerous but also to reflect capabilities beyond simply the timely and devastating delivery of firepower. If the Pentagon's transformation model was geared for rapid, decisive operations, our post-9/11 experience tells us there will be no one-battle war. The conflicts we face are more like the frontier fighting of the 19th century--in the American West but also in the far-flung outposts of the British Empire--than the epic clashes of European armies in the 20th century.
And so the most valuable contribution of U.S. land forces will often be their mere presence. This is an undeniable lesson of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is a single "metric" of progress in those irregular wars, it is this: Good things happen most often when U.S. forces are present, and bad things happen most often when they are not. Insurgents do not seek direct confrontations with U.S. forces; they avoid them, except in ambushes. Meanwhile, Iraqi government forces are exponentially more effective in partnership with American forces than on their own, and even the gung-ho Afghan National Army relies heavily on U.S. help. To again draw a contrast with the Pentagon's past "transformational" ideal of deploy-fight-recover, where U.S. forces would sally forth from and quickly return to their home bases, the future is not only one of forward-deployed forces but is becoming one where forces are forward-stationed. To win, we must be there.
Thus, the prime directive for U.S. land forces is neither deployability, nor mobility, nor lethality, but sustainability. And the key to sustainability is the quality of the people in the force: Now, more than ever, there is a need for an Army and Marine Corps built around a substantial core of long-service professionals. We do not need a draft, and indeed it would be criminal to send a hastily trained, short-service, conscript force to patrol the streets of Falluja or the hills of Helmand province. Yet even more profoundly, we must rebuild the institutional base of the services. In a war we are struggling to understand, war colleges are not overhead expenses.
To operate successfully on inherently opaque battlefields, field units must be robust. The transformational trend has been to maximize firepower while minimizing manpower, all on the presumption that the enemy would be transparent. Land force structures, in particular, have been relentlessly trimmed over the last decade. Some of this makes sense: The need for small-unit air defenses, for example, is not what it was when we confronted the Soviet hordes. On the other hand, the need for intelligence capacity and military policemen has grown rapidly. And these combat support specialists increasingly need to be tied closely and habitually to the maneuver units they serve; in Iraq and Afghanistan they need to be with the infantry in their combat outposts, not detached in the larger forward operating bases. Technology can boost the effectiveness of the individual soldier and Marine, even in counterinsurgency operations, but these remain manpower-intensive missions.
A robust force can be a more flexible force, but what transforms numbers into results is the quality of leadership. The performance of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has been mixed, although the quality of tactical leadership has surpassed the quality of generalship. We have asked our military leaders not only to fight an unexpected kind of war, but also to make decisions far outside the scope of their training: to act as mayors of cities, to supervise public works projects, to reform local politics, even to conduct diplomacy. Even if other agencies of the U.S. government begin to assume some of these burdens, many will continue to devolve to men and women in uniform. And so our forces must be better educated as well as trained. Obviously, they must learn new languages and understand diverse cultures, but they must also acquire a more sophisticated strategic and political understanding: The acts and decisions of junior officers and noncommissioned officers can quite easily have strategic consequences, especially when magnified by the world media. Improved training and real education mean time, people, and money.
At least three other qualities are essential for U.S. ground forces. The ambiguities of irregular warfare require a high level of small-unit discipline. The sporadic nature of the fighting demands that captains, lieutenants, and NCOs make correct judgments and maintain control of their units in chaotic circumstances; often, holding fire is the right, but agonizingly difficult, choice. At the same time, these small units must maintain the capability to respond, and respond rapidly, with devastating firepower. The new posture in Iraq creates small-unit outposts to better defend the populace and suppress the insurgents, but equally creates a greater number of targets for insurgent attacks. So far, and luckily, attempts to overrun these outposts have failed, but the enemy well understands the potential political value of exploiting our tactical exposure. In particular, the outsourcing of ground force fire support to aircraft is a "transformational" decision that should perhaps be reevaluated. And finally, the land forces need to be genuinely expansible. This quality has been almost lost by the decision-by-default to fight The Long War with too small a force. For five years, activated reservists and National Guardsmen have been providing 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. Army strength; they are no longer a strategic reserve, a hedge against unforeseen contingencies, but an operational reserve, as consumed in their own fashion by the rotational demands of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Long War efforts as the regular force is. And their equipment stocks have been looted in even greater measure.
In sum, the Bush administration's failure to expand, refit, and restructure U.S. land forces in a timely fashion after the 9/11 attacks has left the Army and Marine Corps dangerously brittle. The spirit of soldiers and Marines is undiminished, and their performance in battle has been superb. The force is not broken, but its institutional basis is cracking.
How Much Is Enough?
The experience of the past five years has at least taught us how much is not enough. Through the post-9/11 years, the number of soldiers in the active-duty Army--regulars plus activated reservists--has hovered between 600,000 and 625,000. Fully 40 percent of this force is deployed abroad. Active Marine strength is 180,000; the Marines rely less directly on their reserves. This "total land force" of about 800,000 has been strained to its limits to sustain the demands of ongoing operations. And, as the "surges" in Iraq and Afghanistan make clear, there has been a long-neglected need for larger deployments; we have fought our wars on the cheap.
The Bush administration's plans for expansion, outlined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, do little to solve the basic problem. The Gates Plan would increase the size of the regular Army to 547,000; the best that can be said is that it might lighten the burden on the reserves, but the ability to sustain a surge level of effort would be very much in doubt. Also, the pace of the Gates Plan is slow: The expansion timetable stretches to 2012. Recently retired Army chief of staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, in his final congressional testimony, told the Senate that he had recommended a larger increase and a faster schedule, but that Gates rebuffed him. And in late April new Army chief Gen. George Casey revealed that he, too, wanted a faster timetable, directing his staff to "tell me what it would take to get it done faster."
The Gates Plan is more generous to the Marines: an increase to 202,000. That's a good thing in and of itself, and actually would make the Corps larger than it was at the end of the Cold War. However, it continues and even exacerbates an imbalance in overall land forces structure in a way that makes sustained operations--those required by The Long War--more stressful. Simply put, the U.S. Marine Corps is built first and foremost around the concept of six-month rotations in amphibious units capable of independent operations for about 30 days; the Corps is structured around its ship cycle. Thus in Iraq, Marine rotations are seven months while Army rotations have been extended to 15 months. This does not at all mean that Marines are shirking their load, but it does reflect the fact that they are trained with a very different mission in mind. Here's a useful point of reference: At the end of the Cold War, one in five American ground forces was a Marine; as we go forward in The Long War, the ratio is one in four. As our war becomes longer, our force has become less sustainable, by design.
The right solution is not to deprive the Marines of the people--or the other resources--they need, but rather to restore the Army to sufficient strength to carry a larger load in the years to come. It is not only a wiser way to prosecute the long-duration missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it would release a larger portion of the Marine Corps to do those missions for which it is uniquely suited. The Gates Plan does not appear to reflect a fully considered, more holistic approach to sizing U.S. land forces. Paradoxically, this diminishes the value of unique formations like the Marines or Army airborne or air mobile units by treating them simply as more cogs in the force-generation machine. The Marines number of 202,000 is not wrong, but the Army number of 547,000 is wrong in a way that will have consequences for the entire force.
Thus the most important step in fixing what's wrong with our land forces is to build a regular Army capable of conducting The Long War at a reasonable pace of deployments, without so completely engaging its own reserve components or the Marine Corps. A rough estimate would mean an active force of approximately 750,000 soldiers, still a smaller Army than at the end of the Cold War but an expansion roughly five times that envisioned by the Bush administration. Even at a faster pace of expansion such growth could well require the better part of a decade.
It would also cost a lot of money. Just how much depends not only on the number of troops but the nature of their equipment--and that's an equally important question to ponder. The unfortunate fact is that much of the military transformation of the past decade has gone to purchase equipment of doubtful utility in The Long War. As a result, ground force modernization has lagged far behind, while the increased pace of operations and unexpected combat losses have depleted the fleet of vehicles, aircraft, and gear of all sorts. The sizable supplemental appropriations of the past two years are helping to reset the ground forces, but not nearly enough to restore the necessary technological edge. The Army's force management and comptroller staffs estimate that the Army has "skipped" about $100 billion in new gear over the past decade. The danger is, as Democratic senator Carl Levin has explained, that we will create "a larger version of a less-ready force." Any expansion needs to be balanced with equal equipment modernization.
Many of the current estimates of the cost of expansion exclude these equipment costs. For example, a recent Congressional Budget Office study of the administration's expansion plans puts the annual increase at $14 billion by the time the Gates Plan is complete. Perhaps a better methodology, if still crude, is to use the Army's estimate of the cost of the "doctrinal" current force--that is, the force as it would be if it had all the right equipment, staffing, and resources--and do a proportional calculation. So if the cost of sustaining a force with an active component of 510,000 is, as estimated by the Army, $138 billion per year in 2008 dollars, then an Army half again as large is likely to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. Again, the methodology is far from precise, but absent a better one, it serves as a benchmark. It's also a measure of the inadequacy of the current baseline budget: For 2007, before supplementals, the formal Army budget was $112 billion. I am not aware of a similar "doctrinal" cost estimate for the Marines, but it's a reasonable assumption that the gap between ends and means is similar.
And yet $200 billion is little more than one percent of America's annual gross domestic product. The question is not whether we can afford sufficient land forces, but whether we will choose to have them. In simple terms, the task is to restore the Army and Marine Corps to the manpower levels at the end of the Cold War. But the goal is not to recover the past so much as to adapt to the present; increased investments would be squandered absent accelerated equipment modernization. Again, the Army's dilemma is the most apparent. Chastised for clinging to Cold War heavy-weapons programs and resisting the program of transformation, the service suffered the two largest program cuts of the Rumsfeld years with the termination of the Crusader howitzer and Comanche helicopter.
Former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki responded by proposing the Future Combat System project, an innovative attempt to synchronize all Army modernization over a period of decades while introducing information technologies to "network" the force. But no good deed goes unpunished: By breaking procurement paradigms, the Future Combat System has run afoul of the green-eyeshade crowd in the Pentagon, in the Office of Management and Budget, and in the Congressional Budget Office. Further, the Army has done a terrible job of explaining the value of this project in the current combat environment, while resisting the obvious need to move rapidly to adapt to a changing battlefield. Most notoriously, the Army has been slow to replace the Humvee--the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle--never meant to function as a combat vehicle and vulnerable to insurgent attacks and "improvised explosive devices." Now the service has confessed it needs about $20 billion worth of so-called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and an angry and confused House of Representatives has whacked $860 million out of the 2008 request for the Future Combat System project to help pay for them.
But these are not the budgetary follies of the late Cold War years. Now, the costs are more immediate, paid not in dollars but in the currency of lives and the danger of defeat. The strategic stakes are immense: The Long War is the central conflict of the 21st century. It cannot be won from a distance. The days when the United States could stand safely "over the horizon," empowering the local regimes in a quest for "stability," supplying naval and airpower as needed, have passed. We are embroiled in a Long War without an opt-out option, whether we like it or not. Out of this conflict will come a new political order, but that can't happen until the fighting is over. It is a fight we cannot afford to lose, and a fight that must be won on land. We began the fight with the land force we had, but now we must build the land force we need.
Tom Donnelly is resident fellow in defense and national security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.